June 18, 2003

EGOVOS endorses South Africa's Open Source strategy

- by Tony Stanco -
The Center of Open Source & Government [www.egovos.org ]
endorses the South African Proposed
Strategy for Using Open Source Software in the South African Government by
providing rationally defensible policy guidelines. The South African
Strategy is a reasonable
road map for a viable Open Source Government Policy for the following
reasons:

1. Official Statement of Recognition of the Legitimacy of Open Source

Since Open Source as a policy consideration is a relatively new phenomenon,
a proper Open Source Government Policy begins with the explicit recognition
of Open Source as a legitimate software development methodology.

The South African Strategy explicitly states that Open Source software is a
legitimate alternative to proprietary software in government systems.

2. Designation of Particular Government Agency to Lead Open Source
Program

A proper Open Source Government Policy provides authority and accountability
to a high level government official who is responsible for coordination,
communication and execution of the Program.

The South African Strategy designates the State IT Agency (SITA) to provide
leadership and support for government institutions wishing to implement Open
Source Software. The strategy makes provision for briefing sessions to the
public and to government agencies, publishing information through
appropriate media outlets, creating and maintaining an Open Source
government website, and making presentations at conferences.

3. Level Playing Field in Government Procurement

A government IT policy should foster a commitment to competition without,
directly or indirectly, pre-determining winners, as a result there should be
no a priori procurement preferences. However, a neutral government
procurement policy first ensures that all de facto and de jure preferences,
prejudices and discriminations are removed. Once the playing field is
leveled, purchases should be made on technical merit, giving both
proprietary and Open Source software an equal opportunity to be selected.

One prerequisite for a level playing field is the removal of existing user
lock-ins resulting from de facto proprietary standards in use in the current
IT environment. As such, governments should immediately mandate that only
products abiding by enforceable Open Standards and Open Protocols be
purchased.

Until all major IT products are produced in compliance with Open Standards
and Open Protocols, it is reasonably defensible for governments to have
policies that deviate to a limited degree from a procurement policy that
would look exclusively at technical merit. The preferred mitigating policy
is charging proprietary companies a 5-10% non-compliance fee on all
purchased products that are non complying, with the proceeds used to fund
Open Source education and software development in the country. A less
preferred policy, though still reasonably defensible, is a pre-set
set-aside of between 10-20% of the IT procurement budget that will be used
to procure Open Source products, even though strict adherence to a policy of
purchasing on technical merit would suggest that proprietary products be
purchased. The rationale for the de jure disparate treatment between
proprietary and Open Source during this transitional period is the fact that
a de facto disparate treatment currently exists that benefits proprietary
and needs to be counter-balanced until Open Standards are implemented.

The South African Strategy requires that Open Standards are to be a
prerequisite for all software development. It also says that discrimination
and prejudice will be avoided in software procurement procedures to give
Open Source and proprietary equal opportunity to be selected. However, the
South African Strategy does not attempt to implement an interim policy to
counter-balance the current slanting of the playing field towards
proprietary until the policy goal of compliance with Open Standards is
functional in the market.

4. Appreciation of Social Value of Open Source Software

While government procurement policy should be neutral to ensure that
governments do not introduce market distortions into the world economy,
there should be an appreciation of the social benefits of fostering Open
Source software development in a proper Open Source Government Policy plan.

These social benefits include wider access to government information by
citizens, transparency in the functioning of the software running
e-government services, ability to create an indigenous software industry,
and better education and training of local IT professionals. These are
substantial social benefits for a country that are unavailable at all or to
the same degree from the proprietary software industry.

It should be noted that some commentators maintain that the social benefits
for a country of Open Source software are so large that they should always
trump the no a priori preferences principle. The Center of Open Source &
Government cautions governments from placing the economic principles and
social principles in opposition. With Open Source software the economic and
social principles are not in competition and both are attainable
simultaneously. Placing the social benefits above the requirement of a level
playing field unnecessarily complicates public policy and can easily
introduce unwanted market distortions with negative unintended consequences.

However, if it were proven that a level playing field were to result in an
enduring disadvantage to a country's social policies, it would be necessary
to re-visit the issue of a proper balance between the economic and social
policies. The Center of Open Source & Government currently holds, until
shown otherwise, that the economic and social policies supplement and
support each other, so artificially placing them in opposition is needless.

The South African Strategy recognizes the educational and commercial
benefits of Open Source development and recommends that partnerships between
academic, industry and government institutions be implemented. It also finds
a clever balance between a neutral procurement policy and the social
benefits of Open Source suggesting that in circumstances where the
advantages and disadvantages of Open Source and proprietary software are
equally strong, opting for Open Source is preferable, which is sensible.

5. Phased Implementation

Given the disruptions and uncertainties inherent in moving from a
proprietary framework to an Open Source one, phasing in an Open Source
policy program is prudent to allow for piloting, education & training,
capacity building, experimentation and experience learning.

The South African Strategy begins with a Neutral Approach and progresses
through an Enabling Phase to an Aggressive Approach.

Conclusion

For the reasons given, The Center of Open Source & Government endorses the
South African Policy Strategy.

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